Facebook, Vans, and Luna Records have one thing in common: They’ve hired Indianapolis artist Nathaniel Russell to create for them. Using thick lines, imperfect shapes, and simple colors, Russell produces accessible and inviting pieces that people can quickly connect with.
The 40-year-old artist’s work has gained him respect and art shows all over the world, and the love of It’s Nice That, a London-based design, art, and culture blog. The site has ran 10 features on his work, and one of the more fawning headlines is, “We love you Nat Russell. Let’s get married and move to the woods!” Russell has also been featured in Vice, Juxtapoz, and The Huffington Post.
Almost everyone in Indianapolis should be familiar with Russell’s work, even if they didn’t realize it. The large cutout people with the words “we,” “us,” and “all” at the corner of Michigan Street and Mass Ave. is one of the best examples of Russell’s public art. Russell’s work was also part of the Art Assignment show at Gallery 924, including a piece with the words “witches: we need you” written across the top.
Russell has worked in Copenhagen for the CPH Open, a skateboard competition, he has designed decks and shirts for Element skateboards, he painted some of the ramps in the Vans Pro Skate Park Series in Huntington Beach, California. He has done work for The New York Times, created shirts for Indy’s Luna Records, and participated in Facebook’s artist-in-residence program, and creating on the company’s campus for a month. His art has been shown from Indianapolis, to California, to New York, to Paris. Russell has designed countless tour posters and record sleeves for multiple bands. His style is seemingly simple and easy.
“It’s taken a lot of work to make it look really easy,” Russell said. “I want things to be really accessible. Just a line can mean a lot. It’s not something you can explain. There’s a level of unconscious connection from human to human. It’s beyond speech.”
That accessibility is what drew Todd Robinson, founder of Luna Records and a friend of Russell’s, to the artist’s work in the first place. Robinson recalls meeting him right after Russell had graduated from Ball State as a printmaker. Russell had left some postcards of his work from his senior thesis show with his phone number written on them.
“I just about shit because of how great it was,” Robinson said. “I had to have it.”
That print from the card Russell left at Luna still hangs in Robinson’s office, and was the start of the pair’s friendship. Robinson hired Russell at the store and had him create tour posters for the record label that Robinson was running at the time.
Russell has been making art ever since he was a kid and can’t remember a time when he wasn’t. As an only child, he looked to art as something to do that he thought was cool, and he looked up to an uncle who made cartoons. He kept making art and went to Ball State to study printmaking. While working at Luna Records, he saved money for a trip to California.
After moving to San Francisco in 2000, Russell started hanging with more musicians and made connections that lead to him getting illustrations in Dwell magazine. While in California, he worked on his portfolio and got a job at another record store, which lead to more band posters and getting involved in art shows.
Russell came home in 2009 for family reasons and expected to be back for only about six months, but he has stayed for the last seven years. Now married, Russell has a 2-year-old son, and being a father takes up a lot of his already limited time.
Russell is also a musician. He was in the band Birds of America and has put out some solo records, and is currently working on an instrumental tape and 7-inch record which will come as an art book in time for the Los Angeles Art Book Fair.
“There’s no baggage. I don’t have to make money from it, because it’s not my career,” Russell said. “It’s a form of creativity without commerce.”
Beyond music he is putting out a book of fake fliers through Penguin Publishers that should be out in the fall. Element has a few more lines of skateboards and shirts that he has done, which haven’t been released yet.
His work has changed a lot since he graduated.
“I used to really want to work things over and belabor everything,” Russell said. “That’s why I got into printmaking. You can do a quick drawing and then labor at it.”
His style has since become a lot simpler looking, and there is something childish, pure, human about the way it looks. The use of the human hand is important to him as an artist. Russell explained, “you don’t have to use complex means to convey a complex feeling.” His goal as an artist is to keep the human touch; he sees imperfections as the human aspect in art.
Although Indianapolis might not have the same draw for artists as New York or San Francisco, according to Russell this is the best time for an artist to be in this city. He cites spaces like General Public Collective and Circle City Industrial Complex, and everything that Big Car is doing. Artists can have room to spread out and work at a much more reasonable cost than the bigger cities can offer.
“I think there’s a lot going on. There’s more people sticking around and not moving away, and that’s huge,” Russell said.
Russell works out of his home; he just moved to Zionsville and uses its basement, kitchen table—whatever—as his studio space.
Russell hopes that with time he will be able to get more into education, making public art, and just connecting with the community in general. Part of his love of prints is that they can be sold to almost anyone who wants one. His prints are priced right around $50, and he is proud that his work gets ordered all over the world and that people can afford to get it.
“Prints are democratic,” he explained. “I’d rather my print be in 300 places all around the world, instead of inside one rich person’s bedroom.”
That idea is what lead him to make the “Resist Fear, Assist Love” print totally free. He and Robinson did a run of shirts that have received over 400 orders. According to Russell’s blog, 100 percent of the proceeds go to “local and national love-assisting agencies such as Planned Parenthood, ACLU, and similar local organizations.”
“I was really bummed out about the election, so I made a little message to myself and posted it online,” Russell said. Since he posted it, the print has gone all over the place. From a record store in Vancouver, Canada, to people’s personal printers all over the world, the print is totally uncopyrighted, meaning people can sell shirts of it if they want, they can share it without crediting him, and they can use it to help themselves as they need to, which was really important to Russell.
Robinson explained why he has kept going back to Russell’s work: “The universality of it—whether it’s the image or the copy, Nat always ends up speaking a universal truth.”